I am going to die. There have been times in my life when this fact scared me. Two unknown details of my demise still have the power to worry my weary mind: when and how. I don’t want to die young, before my children have grown and blossomed. I wouldn’t prefer a painful death. Other than that, the certainty of my finality no longer fills me with introspective angst.
Most humans are brought up with a pervasive faith in an afterlife. A common thread is found in the tapestry of life-after-death beliefs: retribution. How exactly that retribution will be paid varies widely. Some believe that a caste or species change is in order. Others are certain that a supernatural world awaits them on the other side. Regardless of the specifics, the idea of one’s actions being tallied and answered for is ever-present. While the rewards and punishments differ, religion in general tells us that this life is some sort of cosmic test. Pass and you shall be rewarded; fail and your situation could not be more dire.
Most people want reality to reflect karma. Thinking that the good among us will inherit the best of what the afterlife has to offer and that the villainous will get paid in kind appeals to our sense of order. Of course we want to believe that the wrongs of this life will be righted, even if we have to die to reach the final reckoning. With exceptions, humans act within the same basic ethical parameters. Yet, as self-deprecating as we can be, we are skilled at seeing the faults of others as greater than our own. I have heard the smug satisfaction of Christians as they tell atheists to fear Hell. Many may have a tiny twisted ball of fear in their stomachs asking if they will be among the damned, but I would venture that most are confident that they will gain admission into the pearly gates.
Armed with the ‘knowledge’ that they will be saved from the inequalities of this world, something happens to believers. When this life is only an assessment, it loses a lot of its purpose. Sure, one must practice what has been learned. Never knowing when the final exam will take place adds a mix of urgency and tediousness. Still, there are plenty of other pupils in class to serve as distraction in the mean time. But, what’s the point? If we trust religion, existence is only a means to an end. Why look at the stars? Why fall in love? Why do anything other than study for the ultimate examination?
As an atheist, I have been asked what meaning my life can hold. As if immortality adds purpose rather than subtracting it. I have to assume that most theists have not truly pondered what an afterlife represents. Life goes on after someone dies. Marriage vows are ’till death do us part’ for a reason. Many of the afterlife myths I have come across state that even if you are among the rewarded and your friends and family are among the condemned, you will not be sad. What??
Allow me to state that if an afterlife does exist and I am saved but my children are not and I am not insane with grief, I am no longer myself. I have changed into someone else entirely, someone I have no desire to know or be. Ironically, if our actions are only part of a supernatural audit where success means dismissing the individual who actually took the test for an eternity spent as an intrinsically different person, the test is rendered useless. Think about it. We are our memories, thoughts, and experiences. If these are nothing more than a distant dream when we reach the afterlife then what was the point of having to earn it at all?
The fact that our life ends gives us all the meaning we could ever want. A day will come when I am not alive, not even remembered. If I don’t make these moments count, these right nows, then I will have wasted the only consciousness I will ever have. There is no need to cheapen this life with pretend second chances. Finding what and who we love and surrounding ourselves with those loves is a glorious way to spend this lifetime. This one lifetime.
It is better that I die. You too. Looking into our society’s past, we see that social evolution depends upon the death of old ideas and those that hold them. ‘Passing on’ is nothing more than handing off the world to our children, to the next generation. With our final breaths, we are asking that they rid themselves of our prejudices and irrational thoughts. Little by little, person by person, our society changes. It could improve or worsen, but our fate would be sealed if we held immortality. Humanity cannot thrive unless we prune the branches of our family tree, including the limbs where we ourselves grow.
Most readers (and viewers) think that Dumbledore was referring to an afterlife. Perhaps that is what J.K. Rowling was referring to. That isn’t what I picture though. As Sagan said, we are all starstuff. Our dead and decaying bodies will still be starstuff. While I plan on turning my starstuff into a tree for a while, eventually the atoms that I call my own will scatter across the universe once more. I don’t know what my quarks or neurons will be in another millenia, but they will exist. My mind may not be along for the ride but everything that I am made of will continue to swirl among the stars. What could be more adventurous than that?